While the CCDC could build a theater, it wouldn’t manage one. “We had no staff and no expertise to book events and run a theater,” said Allsbrook. So the nonprofit Horton Plaza Theatre Foundation was created to oversee and manage the city’s cultural newcomer. It entertained bids for master lessee from many quarters, and newspaper accounts at the time stated that the proposals were highly competitive. As Allsbrook recalls it, “Only the Rep’s proposal really stood out.” The CCDC and the Rep entered lease negotiations in 1984.
For 13 months, city bureaucrats and theater staff tried to hammer out a lease agreement. “It was so frustrating,” recalls Messner, who helped Jacobs and Woodhouse. “For every one step forward, we’d take two steps back.”
Allsbrook had a similar recollection. “Here we are, city bureaucrats trying to understand how theater people think and work. We had to negotiate the gamut, from how to value management services, who maintains what, the question of union or nonunion shop, the ability to pay rent over income....”
In desperation, the negotiators locked themselves into the conference room of then-downtown law firm of Jenkins and Perry. After three days, they emerged exhausted and bloody but successful. The rent would be $1 a year under seven-year, renewable leases, and the Rep would collect a management fee to help arts organizations from around the city to mount productions there. The huge utility bill ultimately would be the Rep’s responsibility, but the city would underwrite it in decreasing amounts for four years.
Finally, on May 31,1986, the Rep opened Quilters on the Lyceum main stage in Horton Plaza. For the past decade, dozens of other arts organizations have also used the two city stages.
As long as the Rep maintains the letter of the one-inch-thick agreement, relations between theater and landlord are cordial. However, these days, the Horton Plaza Theater Foundation is watching its sole charge fairly closely.
Following the disastrous ’88-’89 season, recalled Allsbrook, “We became acutely aware that the Rep’s financial position was precarious. We heard from vendors who weren’t being paid and saw problems with payroll. The Rep came to us for an advance [on its management fee], but the board took a very tough stand, saying that it did not exist to solve the Rep’s problems.”
Since then, the board has met every two months and looks over financial statements. An audited statement of condition is demanded annually. It watches that bills are being paid, especially the utilities, for which the city is the customer of record, ultimately liable for the bill. The Rep’s lease was renewed, as scheduled, in 1993. While the board refused to increase the management fee, it did allow more flexibility in other areas.
"The Rep has always exceeded the letter of the agreement as far as number of days the theater is open [at least 240 of 365] and its commitment to helping arts organizations within the city stage their productions. They’ve done wonderful things there,” said Allsbrook.
That said, he maintains that the Lyceum is the city’s one and only theater fling. “We will never, as far as I can see, put ourselves in the position of funding a nonprofit theater group again. We don’t have the assets for capital needs or operations. And it takes a lot of handholding with the Rep. That is not a criticism, but a fact of theater life. At this point, our job is to make sure we preserve the city’s asset.”
That reslove may be tested since interest in the 72-year-old Balboa Theatre has heated up recently. Corporate interest - everyone from Sega Corporation to Disney has been mentioned - evolves from the condemned theater’s Fourth Avenue site and the natural entertainment tie-in. The Rep, just yards away from the Balboa, has also expressed an interest in the theatre as additional live-performance space.
Allsbrook, who has met with Jacobs on the idea, stands firm. “We don't have the money for capital improvements [estimates range from $6 million to $12 million, a large portion of which would be spent on seismic retrofitting] nor can we subsidize operations.” The only way that seeming miserliness would change is if "the city council finds the money and directs us to make the Balboa a priority....” In this age of multi-million-dollar libraries and aging city infrastructure, it seems unlikely.
Sam Woodhouse and Doug Jacobs are codirectors of the Rep; at the moment, Jacobs carries the title of artistic director and Woodhouse is producing director. “I do the tasks of the managing director now. During the time when we were facing economic challenges, it was decided to return management to the founders,” Woodhouse said, speaking in a strange, third-person way. “We discuss, on a regular basis, whether we need a managing director, whether we should go there again, and have decided not.”
Three times in 20 years, the founders turned over the day-to-day management and finances to others as they worked on other writing, directing, teaching, or strategic projects for the theater. One such position was forced by the board of directors, which collectively agreed that the theater needed consistency in management from a full-time staffer. For personal and organizational reasons, the experience wasn’t a successful one.
“The artistic choices and business decisions are intimately married,” said Woodhouse. “At this point, we will leave them with the founders.”
Jacobs, who admits to having to wean himself from micro-management, likens their management style to “getting in there and finding the Indian trails. Training, 1 would say, is not our strong point. We tend to hire a person for a job and let them figure it out. We give people a high level of responsibility, and at some point, because no one is standing over them, telling them what to do, they figure it out and prosper.”
Through the years, the Rep lost some of its staff to bigger organizations and, notably, better-paying jobs. Jacobs is encouraged by a recent reversal of that trend. “We’re actually hiring out of larger organizations now,” he says. One case in point is Eric Bernhard, who returned to the Rep after a stint in San Francisco. And general manager John Redman is arranging new internship programs, to foster management talent from within.
And after 20 years of planning, managing, coordinating the juggling act that is a regional theater, says Sam Woodhouse, “The next step for us? I’m not sure, but it will involve exploring whether growth can occur through a sharing of resources and partnerships. Ideally, we’d be producing 12 productions a year, providing even more work for theater people and with a true, diverse palette to be presented to the degree we’d like.”